Bacillary Hemoglobinuria

Gerald Hauer, DVM
Bison Production Specialist
Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development
Bison Centre of Excellence, Leduc, Alberta.
Phone: (780) 986-4100

Reprinted from The Tracker, October 1998


Bacillary hemoglobinuria is also called “Red Water Disease” in western Canada. It is caused by a bacterial infection in the liver that releases toxins into the blood stream and causes red blood cell destruction and death. Bison are susceptible to the condition and if you raise bison in certain areas of Alberta your animals may be prone to contacting the disease.

Bacillary Hemoglobinuria

In western Canada bacillary hemoglobinuria is often referred to as redwater because of the red urine that is associated with the disease. This can be confusing as “redwater” is a completely different disease in other parts of the world. In this article we will use the proper term of bacillary hemoglobinuria. Over the past few years this disease has been diagnosed in elk with increasing frequency. It is something that you should know a little bit about, because it is a rapidly fatal disease of cattle, sheep and elk. I have not heard of the disease occurring in bison but it may affect them as well.

The disease is caused by a bacteria called Clostriduim hemolyticum. It is a member of the Clostridial family which is responsible for an assortment of other fatal diseases such as blackleg, malignant edema, and enterotoxemia. This organism is typical of the Clostridials in that it produces spores that can survive in the environment for a long time and can remain dormant in animal tissues until conditions become suitable for growth. Spores are produced by the bacteria if an infected animal dies and the carcass is not properly disposed of. These bacterial spores can survive in the soil for over a year causing elk to become infected while they graze. The spores penetrate the lining of the intestines, spread to the blood stream, and make their way to the liver. They remain dormant or inactive until the liver is damaged by invading liver flukes or bruising which provides conditions suitable for growth. Once they start growing they release two toxins. The first destroys adjacent tissue which allows the bacteria to continue to grow. The second is released into the circulating system where it destroys the red blood cells causing discolored urine or “red water”. Red blood cell destruction also causes lack of oxygen to the body tissues and death of the animal. Once the bacteria begins to grow death generally occurs in less than 12 hours. Occasionally it may take up to 4 days for the animal to die.

Because the disease can progress very rapidly, there is usually no sign that the elk is sick before you find it dead in the pen. If you happen to spot the animal in the early stages of this disease you will notice a very depressed animal that is off by itself, reluctant to move, not eating, breathing quickly, and generally just not looking very well. These are symptoms of a number of diseases in their final stages but what sets bacillary hemoglobiuria apart from the others is that there is a very dark, red urine. A number of other conditions can also cause red urine in your animals and these vary greatly between the different regions of North America. It is wise to have your elk examined by a veterinarian who is familiar with the diseases common to your area.

Treatment of this disease may be successful if the animal is noticed early enough in the course of the disease. Large doses of antibiotics such as penicillin are used to kill the bacteria. Treatment with BanamineR , IV fluids, and blood transfusions may also help. The key to successful treatment is to start early; however, this is very difficult because of the rapid progression of the disease.

Prevention is the best way to reduce losses in your herd. Vaccination against Clostridium hemolyticum is an effective way of preventing the disease in cattle and sheep and it appears to be successful in elk as well. Most 7 or 8 way Clostridial vaccines contain Clostridium hemolyticum but for some reason it doesn’t seem to offer sufficient protection in elk. “RedwolR”, a cattle vaccine by Bayer, vaccinates specifically against Clostridium hemolyticum and its use in some elk herds has cut losses dramatically. This vaccine shouldn’t replace the 8-way Clostridial vaccine, but should be used in combination so that the animals are protected against the other Clostridial diseases as well. Consult your veterinarian to help you devise a complete vaccination schedule as a part of your preventative health management program in your herd. Other steps that can be taken to reduce the incidence of this disease within a herd is to treat the herd for liver flukes regularly if they are a problem in your area and to properly dispose of all carcasses to reduce spore production.

Bacillary hemoglobinuria can cause death losses in susceptible elk herds, but with proper vaccination, these losses can be minimized. The high value of an elk herd makes it well worth the time to sit down and create a vaccination schedule. In my opinion bacillary hemoglobinuria should be a part of that schedule.

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